Tree of Life – A Reframe
For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and various fraction branches), The Book of Mormon contains many important themes, primarily the process of coming to Christ. In the early part of the book, there is a story told by one of the prominent characters named Nephi about a dream called The Tree of Life. On October 6th, 2019, Church leader Neil Anderson described the importance of the Tree of Life dream in a conference talk aired to Church members worldwide. In his talk, Anderson spoke critically of distracting voices and portrayed the Tree of Life dream from a church-obedient perspective. I want to offer what I feel is a healthier perspective for believing and nonbelieving Mormons.
Lehi’s VIsion of the Tree of Life
The Tree of Life dream describes a path leading to a beautiful tree with highly desirable fruit. For those along the path, arrival at the anticipated destination is ensured by holding firmly to a rod of iron. Grasping the rod is significant since the path is occluded by a mist of darkness. In the dream, some lose hold of the rod by listening to the shaming voices of individuals in a large and spacious building who mock those who travel along the path (1 Nephi 8, Book of Mormon).
In the Book of Mormon, the iron rod is interpreted as “the word of God” (1 Nephi 11:25, Book of Mormon). While not mentioned implicitly, many Church leaders have taught this is the equivalent of following the prophet, because the word of God is found in the scriptures, and the scriptures are superseded by the words of the living Prophet (Nelson, 2009). Not all agree with this interpretation. Some have suggested the rod of iron is best interpreted as personal revelation (Cook, 2018; Pontius, 2002). This uncommon reframing of this symbol yields healthy perspectives in contrast to Anderson’s views.
Elder Neil Anderson accurately describes the symbolic representation of the tree, as interpreted in the Book of Mormon; the tree represents the love of God. Anderson takes creative license and adds the following additional interpretations including the fruit of the tree is synonymous with ordinances of the Church, contemptuous individuals are mocking followers of Christ, holding the iron rod means obedience to commandments, assailants in the building are the construction crews of Satan who operate with “Internet megaphones”, and more.
Anderson’s perspective is not entirely new. An obedience-oriented interpretation is straightforward. It provides a framework for strict adherence to church leaders, creates an othering strategy to dissuade individuals from listening to non-approved sources, and provides value for an open canon (i.e., living prophets). However, this approach severely minimizes the experience of hundreds of thousands of Mormons whose experiences are not simple. These experiences include sexual orientation and identity differences (LGBTQ+), non-nuclear family formats, differing spiritual beliefs, and a broad diversity of cultural backgrounds.
In contrast, the Book of Mormon defines the fruit of the tree as the love of God (1 Nephi 11:22, Book of Mormon). If the destination of the path doesn’t lead to God’s love, or one’s experience of God’s love is not a part of self-love with the divine, it may not be a path worth celebrating. Isn’t God’s grace and unconditional love the fruit by which we know Him (Matthew 7:16, King James Version).
If, however, the iron rod is epitomized as personal revelation, the application of the dream becomes adaptive for both observing and transitioning Mormons. Instead of Anderson’s description of the rod being strict orthodoxy, individuals create a pathway to the divine (the tree) by establishing a personal relationship to God in a way meaningful to them. This substitutes the building’s naysayers from nefarious anti-Mormons to individuals who openly resist others who claim spiritual sovereignty. This approach creates space for a broad spectrum of spiritual experiences. It reinterprets the relationship with God (and one’s spiritual journey) as a personal experience of growth thwarted by ignorance instead of obstructed by questioning. It replaces being lost from “rebellion to authority” with a traumatic response to shame.
I know this perspective is threatening for some believing Mormons. It suggests there is more than one path to the symbolic tree and proposes the building of detractors could be insiders of the faith. This interpretation wouldn’t be untimely. In the dream, the building is described as ornate, and its occupants are dressed to the nines (1 Nephi 8:29, Book of Mormon). Critics of the Church suggest many presentations of the Church and its members match this description. According to the dream, the outcome of the building’s occupant’s criticism results in path-seekers falling away and becoming lost. There is nothing more lost than disconnecting from one’s own journey to God (or whatever that is for them) whether they are a faithful member or not. If the fruit of the tree is, according to the Book of Mormon, the most precious above all, the product of the journey along the path, with the rod, must be more than church ritual. This path must include the unique diversity of a plan tailored for an individual by way of personal revelation. Wouldn’t a loving Creator want nothing more?
I’m a Mormon and an advocate for marginalized communities and children. As a graduate student in the mental health field, I’m interested in how institutional policies affect individuals, especially in the context of cultural traditions.
In a recent opinion article published in the Deseret News (a paper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), BYU professor and church employee David Dollahite commented against the recent “Protect LDS Children” movement lead by Sam Young. Dollahite is an active church member and former LDS bishop. Dollahite currently teaches marriage and family life classes at BYU. Young is also an active LDS church member and former bishop. Young is petitioning the LDS church to change a long-standing policy where LDS bishops conduct one-on-one interviews behind closed doors and ask sexually explicit questions.
While I respect the dialog, I take exception to Dollahite’s arguments and feel impressed to comment on his article.
Dollahite suggests research supports the current LDS interview policy. Dollahite correctly cites Kenda Creasy Dean who says Mormon teens were ”the least likely to engage in high-risk behavior and consistently were the most positive, healthy, hopeful and self-aware teenagers” (Dean, 2010, p. 20). However, Dean does not conclude this was a result of one-on-one interviews. In fact, she suggests positive Mormon-youth outcomes stem from high-level religious observance, religious vitality, and spiritual congruence between beliefs and practice. What Dollahite is doing is taking a correlative factor and implying causation. Dean also cites several other Mormon practices including family devotion (family home evening), ritual service, peer accountability, goal oriented orthodoxy, and religious education (seminary) as key influences (Dean, 2010, p 52). Dollahite correctly mentions Dean’s opinion that non-parental role modeling is a positive contributor for Mormon youth. However, most role leader-to-youth modeling is performed in a public setting with a diverse set of adults. Healthy role modeling does not occur in private settings with a man. In short, while research suggests Mormon social practices are adaptive, this study doesn’t conclude the results come from LDS interview policies.
Dollahite also references a study where at-risk youths who participated in mentoring programs experienced less depressive symptoms, had greater acceptance among peers and experienced higher levels of positive experiences at school (Herrera & DuBois and Grossman, 2013). While this study speaks highly of one-on-one mentoring, it says nothing about one-on-one interviews behind closed doors involving sexually explicit questions. Furthermore, the authors express their inability to describe how this process works, suggesting uncontrolled factors were not isolated (Herrera & DuBois and Grossman, 2013). Also, the authors remark the study is problematic due to self-reported exaggerations and a lack of emotional disclosure. Dollahite’s confidence in drawing conclusions from this study are misleading and potentially unethical.
Dollahite also references an article in The Atlantic where the professor of psychology Jean Twenge says social media caused depression is reduced when youth attend religious services (Twenge, 2017). However, Twenge also says depressive symptoms were also reduced when youth participated in sports. Twenge is not suggesting one-on-one interviews behind a closed door with an older man with no training in human psychology and sexuality while asking sexually explicit questions is a factor, nor should Mr. Dohaite.
Dollahite suggests violations of ecclesiastical trust are uncommon and rare. I agree that the vast majority of LDS bishops are good men with no ill intent toward the children in their stewardship. However, all youth (especially girls, and minorities) are inadvertently taught grooming behaviors through current LDS interview practices. Even if the bishop is not a sexual predator, the impact to children creates psychological heuristics to trust authority figures without protective boundaries afforded boy scouts, tithing receipts, primary age children, and young women at girls camp. Such grooming practice results in adolescents or adults granting trust to potential victimizers in situations as demonstrated in the 1984 rape of an adult female LDS missionary while in the LDS missionary training center (MTC), in similar interviews with an authority figure and MTC President Joseph Bishop.
Dollahite says recent church policy changes have taken steps to ensure the protection of youth. While these baby steps are positive, they do not add anything substantial to previous policies. Bishops are not required to have another adult present, and an adult “nearby” doesn’t constitute safety. Can you imagine the outrage if LDS scouting policies allowed for a boy scout leader to sleep in the tent with a young boy, even if another adult was in an adjacent tent?
I agree with Dollahite that religious standards are healthy for most LDS youth. What Young is asking for is the end of one-on-one interviews, not a change in moral standards. Bishops are not trained in human development or psychology. Also, LDS Bishops do not understand, nor are they trained in trauma, abuse, or the complex nature of human sexuality.
Dollahite says the value of the priest-penitent relationship is valued in society. The vast majority of the supporting evidence contributing to social support for what Dollahite says is “candid and confidential conversations” comes from ecclesiastical leaders who have been trained and certified in pastoral counseling. This may be why no other mainstream religious organization conducts worthiness interviews or asks questions of their minors in the manner the LDS church practices.
Dollahite suggests there is no substitute for confidential conversations and counsel. While I agree parishioner confidentiality is important, the current LDS handbook of instructions for bishops enumerates allowances for breach of confidentiality, and do not include informed consent regarding how confidentiality is practiced (as if a minor can provide consent). This lack of pastoral care confidentiality standard creates an augmented unsafe environment for victims of abuse, individuals struggling with mental health disorders, and complicates social shaming dynamics in lay membership models.
Other religious institutions (like the Catholic church) have navigated many of these same situations in years past. Author John Cornwell, describe the horrific practices that occurred in the confessional by Catholic church leaders who didn’t understand how “shame heaped upon the laity caused incalculable and unnecessary suffering” (Cornwell, 2014). Other researchers note historical attitudes in Mormon attitudes toward human sexual behaviors are deeply problematic (Malan & Bullough, 2005). Should we be asking how many of these cultural viewpoints are influencing private conversations behind closed doors?
Dollahite fails to connect any evidence that one-on-one interviews with untrained bishops asking sexually explicit questions are connected to Mormon youth satisfaction and positive behaviors. While we agree Mormon youth success stories exist, we may disagree that private one-on-one interviews are required for healthy psychosexual and spiritual development for youth. Respectfully, Dollahite’s belief in the reliability of LDS confessional neglects the reality of real-life situations experienced by thousands of LDS children. I support Young, we should focus on creating safety for youth and children, so bishops can do their job in helping augment the goals of parents in the spiritual development of our children.
Cornwell, J. (2014). The dark box: a secret history of confession. Basic Books (AZ).
Dean, K. C. (2010). Almost Christian: What the faith of our teenagers is telling the American church. Oxford University Press.
Herrera, C., DuBois, D. L., & Grossman, J. B. (2013). The Role of Risk: Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes for Youth with Varying Risk Profiles. MDRC.
Jean M. Twenge. (2017, August 3). Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/ Malan, M. K., & Bullough, V. (2005). Historical development of new mas…tion attitudes in Mormon culture: Silence, secular conformity, counterrevolution, and emerging reform. Sexuality and Culture, 9(4), 80-127.
Elder Neil L. Andersen – The Tree of Life [Video file]. (2019, October). Retrieved from https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/general-conference/2019/10/media/6092742593001?lang=eng
Cook, J. (2018, December 5th). Nephi’s iron rod may not be what you think it is. Retrieved from https://bycommonconsent.com/2018/12/05/nephis-iron-rod-may-not-be-what-you-think-it-is/
Pontius, J. M. (2002). Following the Light of Christ Into His Presence. Cedar Fort.
Nelson, Z. (2009). The Rod of Iron in Lehi’s Dream. Religious Educator: Perspectives on the Restored Gospel, 10(3), 5.